Utah Crumbles in Pac-12 Title as 'Conference of Champions' Again Misses Playoff

The fifth-ranked Utes had a clear path to the College Football Playoff. Instead, they faltered Friday night against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, as the weakest of the Power Five conferences comes up short again.
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Dec 6, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks safety Brady Breeze (25) intercepts a pass intended for Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (3) during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 cannot have nice things.

That’s the dispatch Friday night from Santa Clara, where the conference ate its own. The Pac-12 watched its championship game turn into a College Football Playoff elimination game. Utah, the shining hope of a downtrodden league, played the first half with the poise of a herd of panicked wildebeest in a 37-15 loss to Oregon.

And so the weakest of the Power Five conferences will miss the playoff for the third straight season, and for the fourth time in the six years of the playoff’s existence. No other Power Five league has missed the playoff more than twice. It is a major problem for the Pac-12, without an easy solution in sight.

This playoff snub was the cruelest yet for the West Coast. In the previous two seasons, the Pac-12 was eliminated from consideration weeks ahead of the championship game. This time, the Utes were exactly where they needed to be with one game to go.

The committee slotted Utah in fifth. With No. 4 Georgia a significant underdog against No. 2 LSU Saturday in the Southeastern Conference title game, the path was there. Beat Oregon and play well while doing it, watch the Tigers take out the Bulldogs, then win the resume contest with Oklahoma or Baylor—whichever wins the Big 12 at 12-1.

Except the Utes fell apart. They wilted under the bright lights of playoff pressure.

This outcome would seemingly gift-wrap a playoff bid for the Big 12, provided LSU beats Georgia. It also relieves the pressure on the committee to make a hard decision.

Under Kyle Whittingham, Utah has been consistently very good but resistant to being great. He’s a defensive coach who has rarely fielded a truly explosive and innovative offense, despite shuffling through coordinators at a high rate. Being shut out for the first 34 minutes Friday night only reinforced the fact that the Utes are not a playoff-quality program offensively.

But here’s the other big takeaway from the night: it was Oregon that truly blew its opportunity this year, not Utah. The Ducks were the better team, but the Ducks made two crucial mistakes this season:

  • They scheduled Auburn.
  • They lost to Auburn.

If Oregon had taken the cautious route and gone with, say, a home game against BYU instead of playing the Tigers in Arlington, Texas, it would have been a one-loss team at this point. And this is the point which makes college football maddening in its approach to deciding its champions—scheduling safely has its rewards, because so much is still predicated on the number of losses for each team.

Undefeated is best. One loss is second-best. Two losses is elimination. That’s the playoff history, and before that the history of poll voting since the dawn of time.

But even playing that high-risk game against Auburn, the Ducks had it and let it get away.

They never trailed until nine seconds remained, when Auburn quarterback Bo Nix threw a surprising downfield pass into the end zone that Seth Williams came up with. With 20 minutes left to play in that game, Oregon led by 15 points, then failed to finish.

Oregon’s other loss was at Arizona State Nov. 23, and that was one where the Ducks failed to fire all game. They trailed 24-7 before scrapping back into it, but a victory would have been larceny. Quarterback Justin Herbert picked a very bad day for his only two-interception game of the season.

Oregon showed both how good and how flawed it is Friday night. The Ducks dominated the Utes, but still should have won by more than they did. Penalties, dropped passes and some curious misreads by Herbert kept this from being a complete blowout.

But for Utah and the Pac-12, it was plenty bad enough. This was a game the Utes needed to not only win, but to look good winning. Instead, they looked terrible losing.

And once again, the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions is left out of the championship.